On the last Tuesday of January the people of Shetland celebrate the great fire festival of ‘Up Helly Aa’. The festivities culminate in a huge torchlight procession of men dressed as Vikings and the ceremonial burning of a Viking style longship. Up Helly Aa has only been a continuous festival since 1870, but the Viking heritage it celebrates is over a thousand years old.
From the middle of the ninth century the population of the Danelaw was increased by Vikings not of the raping and pillaging sort, but by settlers from the Scandinavian countries. By the year 1000 the Viking city of Jorvik - York, had a population of 30,000 and was one of the most important trading centres of Europe. The River Ouse was navigable up to the heart of the city and with their sailing genius and shallow draughted vessels the Vikings were trading deep down the rivers of Europe into Russia and as far as Byzantium.
So on their epic voyages across the seas and down the rivers what did the Vikings eat? We know something about their food from the sagas and poetry of the Norse men – the bread was 'heavy, thick, packed with bran’ served with 'broth in a basin' (from the ‘Rígsþula’). The excavation of the almost perfectly preserved Oseberg Ship in Norway brought to light Viking cooking equipment which included a cauldron with its tripod which would have been used on board a longship.
As seafaring people the Vikings ate fish as their main source of protein and they preserved in a number of ways. They certainly dried it on racks in the cold open air in the same way as the inhabitants of the Lofoten Islands do to this day. They buried it – I’m not joking - shark and puffins were buried then excavated and eaten and gravad lax, which I love, actually means ‘buried salmon’. They also smoked it and brined it and they preserved it in lye to make lutefisk
The origin of lutefisk is apparently down to St Patrick. When the Vikings were pillaging Ireland St. Patrick sent men to pour lye on their store of dried fish in the hope of spoiling their food and sending them home. However the Vikings declared the fish a delicacy and it has been a favourite dish in Norway ever since – well maybe.
I've made one of my favourite things - Jannson’s Temptation. I think my original recipe was from Sophie Grigson but I’ve been making it my way so long I’m not sure. It’s very rich so it’s definitely for a treat, and it needs a sharp green salad with a mustardy dressing afterwards.
A small packet of smoked salmon - or a good handful of trimmings
500g potatoes peeled and thinly sliced
250ml of cream – I use single but you know that double will be better don’t you?
Butter a small casserole or soufflé dish. Put in a layer of potatoes then some shreds of salmon, add a few grinds of pepper then more potatoes and so on until it is all used up. Pour over the cream. Bake it at 180c for about 45 minutes or until you can piece it easily with a skewer. Leave to rest for about 10 minutes before eating.